What We’re Reading

Hello again, readers! Today we’re going to continue our semi-regular feature “What We’re Reading,” where we all share the books we’re digging into this week.

Katherine Longshore is reading FIGHTING ON THE HOME FRONT: The Legacy of Women in World War One by Kate Adie.

fighting on the home frontShe says: “Having recently done so much research on women’s lives and women’s roles in England during the pre-war years, I was thrilled to find this account of how enormously those lives and roles changed when Britain went to war in 1914.  I love history written this way–including personal accounts, family stories, and the societal and labor repercussions that continued long after the war ended.  Perfect reading for Women’s History Month and the 100th anniversary of the start of the war.”


J. Anderson Coats is reading THE GIRLS WHO WENT AWAY by Ann Fessler.The Girls Who Went Away

She says: “[the book is] about the (often coerced) surrender of babies for adoption by unmarried pregnant teens and twentysomethings in the years before Roe vs. Wade. It’s almost dystopian, what was done to these girls in the name of propriety. It’s one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve read in a while.”



bo at ballard creekSusan Hill Long is reading BO AT BALLARD CREEK by Kirkpatrick Hill.

She says: “[the book was] the winner of the Scott O’Dell prize for historical fiction. Wonderful middle grade fare.”





Cat Winters is reading the 2009 bestseller PAPER TOWNS by John Green.paper towns

She says: “My fourteen-year daughter read it last week and said she loved it even more than Green’s THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, so the book shot to the top of my to-read list.”




what i thought was trueJessica Spotswood is reading an ARC of Huntley Fitzpatrick’s WHAT I THOUGHT WAS TRUE, out April 15.

She says: “It’s about a girl who’s grown up on a Nantucket-esque island, working for the rich summer crowd, a girl whose parents never left the island  – and the boy who broke her heart and is back slumming it as the yard boy this summer. I loved Huntley’s debut, MY LIFE NEXT DOOR, and this is similarly full of swoony romance and great characterization. She writes fantastic family relationships. Plus, I’m at the beach in NC this week on a writing retreat, so the setting is perfect!”


Laura Golden has two wonderful picks this week, starting with STORY by Robert McKee.story

She says: “brilliant book on plot/story structure that has been super helpful to me through this revision of my current WIP.”

don't feed the boyAnd DON’T FEED THE BOY by Irene Latham.

She says: “I started this lovely middle grade novel several months ago before I sold my next book and had to put it aside. I’m restarting it now. Irene writes fantastic books and I can’t wait to finish this one.” 


And Elizabeth May is digging into Joe Abercrombie’s BEST SERVED COLD.Abercrombie_Best-Serve13DD

She says: “This is my first Abercrombie read and I’m already smitten. BEST SERVED COLD is gritty and dark, with vivid, bloody combat scenes, dark humour, and unforgettable characters.”




This could be a simplistic post.

It could bemoan the lack of diversity in YA literature in general, and YA historical fiction in specific.

It could list a bunch of writers who are working to combat the trend. Writers like Christopher Paul Curtis, Saundra Mitchell, Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Mitali Perkins, Caroline Starr Rose, Debby Dahl Edwardson, Alan Gratz.

(I wanted to put them in here because it’s important to shine light where light belongs, to combat the idea that we here in histficland just write about white girls doing white-girl things in white-girl places wearing pretty white-girl dresses.)

It could dutifully list out titles of books that feature people of color that are set in the past. That’s diversity, right?

This could be a simplistic post, but really, why do we need another white girl talking about diversity and how much we need it? Plenty of people for whom second-class citizenship is a lived reality are saying some really smart things about the cost of a homogenous white narrative.

So I’m going to try really hard not to make this a simplistic post. I’m a historian. I’ve got the letters after my name to prove it. But even if I wasn’t, I can see the problem is not just in fiction.

Fiction is a symptom.

The problem is the assumptions we make about the past. The problem is how the past is presented to us, especially as young people, since this determines how we understand the past.

The problem is in the narratives constructed by human beings that claim to be a source of truth. Because there is no one source of truth. There is only evidence and the narratives we construct based on this evidence.

It determines which narratives about the past we’re exposed to. Which ones we develop an attachment to. Which ones we consider real and viable and valuable.

This is a problem fiction can address.

Fiction can change how we interface with the past. It can change how we understand the past, see the past, experience the past.

This is why it’s not enough to simply have more historical fiction with characters of color. We need those stories too, but we need characters of color who are gay, autistic, bipolar, deaf, religious. We need characters of every color who reflect the ridiculously vast range of human lived experience, especially when they’re set in contexts that emphasize their humanity rather than the problematic nature of their time and place in history.

Especially when they’re about kids.

Fiction can be the thin edge of the wedge. Fiction is a space where people are receptive to new ideas, where we’re already ready to suspend some level of literary disbelief to enjoy a story.

Historical fiction is the best place for character to meet narrative. For people to see the past as something alive, something not trapped in amber and static. Historical fiction is the best place to bring people in.

And if we’re gonna bring people in, we’ve got to bring everyone in.

A lot of people like historical fiction because it brings the past alive. So those of us who write it have a responsibility to bring the past alive in all its infinite complexity.

This is the kind of work fiction can do. This is the kind of work fiction should do.

What’s in a Cover?

One of the questions I’m asked most frequently (especially during school visits) is some iteration of  “Did you have any say in designing your cover?”

The answer (thankfully) is always, “No.”  I’m not design-oriented, nor do I have a strong head for the market and what might be visually appealing to the target audience, so I happily await that thrilling e-mail with Cover! in the subject line.

MANOR OF SECRETS was no exception.  When this landed in my inbox, I was thrilled.


The model looks like a cross between Lady Mary and Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey.  Her dress is stunning, the jewelry gorgeous and the manor stairs and window behind her historically and visually evocative.

And a little sinister.

Do you see it?

My reply to my editor was I love it!, to which she responded, “Don’t worry, we’ll edit out the creepy face in the window.”

Now you see it, right?

A few weeks later, I got to see the full spread, complete with amazing cover copy and that color!  I love the blue (even more now that I’ve discovered that a blue Sharpie is exactly the same color, and makes a pretty autograph).


I especially love that Charlotte is pictured close up, and thoughtful (probably imagining some grand adventure).  Janie is in the distance, as if she’s trying to be unobtrusive, as a good servant should.  But of course, a downstairs maid would never be caught on the main staircase… And if you know anything about historical costume, you’ll realize that Janie’s wearing what is typically an upstairs maid’s costume (the black is a giveaway), but we’re willing to presume that things are different at The Manor.

What I love most about this cover is that it illustrates one of the themes I try to get across within the pages of the book itself.  Unfortunately, I’m not tech-competent enough to enlarge the photograph for you to get a good look at these two girls (you’ll just have to find a copy of the book!) If you look closely, you’ll see that they are the same model.  To me, this just reinforces the idea situation and costume are all external and underneath it all, we’re all basically the same.

Image 4

photograph by Keely Parrack

“A kiss is a lovely trick…”


Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

“…designed by nature to stop speech when words become superfluous.”
Ingrid Bergman

I love writing love scenes. They can be challenging to choreograph so they don’t come across as false or schmaltzy or even gross (unless the scene calls for false, schmaltzy, or gross, of course). But if a writer lets the characters and the situations take charge, a kiss can tell so much about the fictional people involved…and it can add a surge of conflict to a plot.

After all, even in real life, a kiss can change the course of a person’s story.

When I wrote In the Shadow of Blackbirds, I admittedly spent a great deal of time getting a kissing scene at the beginning of the book just right. The love story in the novel involves just one brief physical moment between my protagonist and her first love/childhood friend, so I felt it important to make that moment count. I pulled out my box of writer tools. I added sensory details and worked on developing the characters through their actions. In the end, though, it was my characters’ dire situation that made the scene come to life for me. One of the characters was about to leave for war. The two of them had been close friends since they were in grammar school, but they had never once kissed before. The world seemed to be falling apart around them. Once I threw all those obstacles at them and really felt the urgency of their encounter, the kissing scene fell easily into place.

Before I could say anything awkward to break the spell, he pulled my face toward his and kissed me. I lost my balance at first, but then I closed my eyes and held his smooth neck and enjoyed the warmth and hunger of his mouth. His hand moved to the small of my back and brought me closer. Our stomachs touched. Our chests pinned the photograph between us. He wrapped his arms around me and held me tight against him, as if he were kissing life itself good-bye.
In the Shadow of Blackbirds, Chapter Three


Photo courtesy of Library of Congress.

My Fall 2014 release, The Cure for Dreaming, also entails some kissing scenes, although I can’t yet discuss in detail who is doing the kissing. I will say that the kisses lead to conflict, alter relationships, and throw the characters’ worlds a little off-kilter.

Love scenes are a delightful way to hurl curveballs at characters. How the characters react in the aftermath of intimate situations can tell so much about their personalities and their situations. If you’re a writer and you dread the thought of sitting down and describing two people kissing, I recommend concentrating more on what happens after their lips part. How will your characters react? What will they say? Does one character feel more confident than the other? Do they want to talk about the kiss, or do they part without a mention of it? How does that newfound intimacy change their relationship? Will it help or hinder their greater goals in the book?

Image courtesy Library of Congress.

Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

If you’re undaunted by the idea of getting up close and personal with your characters when they experience a love scene, then simply let go of inhibitions and allow your characters to react to the moment in ways that are either expected or deliciously unexpected. I always imagine my kissing characters becoming suddenly tipsy when they’re in the heat of the moment, and what they say and do is often a little bolder than their normal selves, especially in the case of my early-twentieth-century female characters.

In short, let go of your fears and enjoy tossing your characters into moments that might throw their worlds and the plot off-balance. Conflict is a must in fiction, and there’s no better way to add tension and confusion than to have two characters suddenly find themselves entwined.

For a little added inspiration, I’ll leave you with this lovely collection of kissing scenes involving silent film star Rudolph Valentino. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Cat Winters‘s critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS (Amulet Books), was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a 2014 YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Her upcoming books include THE CURE FOR DREAMING (Amulet Books/Fall 2014) and THE UNINVITED (William Morrow/Publication date TBA). She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at www.catwinters.com.

Romance in the Cahill Witch Chronicles

Hi! Our topic this week – in honor of Valentine’s Day – is writing romance.


I love writing kissing scenes – they come much more easily to me than action scenes. I especially loved writing them for the Cahill Witch Chronicles, which – as historical YA novels with a magical element – allowed me to really play up the longing.


One of my favorite things about writing YA is that your characters experience a lot of firsts. The first kiss and the first time your main character falls in love – though the two are certainly not always synonymous or simultaneous! –  are part of that. Before the kiss – or after the kiss and before the “what are we?” talk – there tend to be lots of longing looks and uncertainty. Whether it’s the Victorian era or 2014, one question is the same: “Does s/he feel the same way I do?” There’s so much feeling to explore in first love – confusion, nervousness, anticipation, desire, happiness. It’s full of soaring highs and crushing lows, which makes – in my opinion – for a good story.


My books take place in an alternate 1890s New England ruled by the Brotherhood, a patriarchal group of priests who have outlawed magic and govern women’s conduct very carefully. Young ladies must declare an intention to marry by age seventeen, or the Brothers may well choose a husband for them. But getting to know a man and figuring out whether he’d be a good husband is no easy matter; young ladies are strictly chaperoned, and any reputation for wantonness could be misconstrued as a witch’s lustful appetites. And the punishment for being a witch in this society involves a prison ship, an insane asylum, or worse. So there’s also more at stake here for my characters than just “does he like me” – there are questions of whether my heroine can risk leaving her sisters alone if she marries, whether she can allow herself to fall in love, whether the man in question can support a wife, whether marrying a man who isn’t of her class would cause gossip her family can ill afford…


The Victorian-era sensibilities give me a chance to play up that longing even more. Everyone is covered from wrists to throat to ankles most of the time. Seeing any unexpected glimpse of skin – the freckled back of a love interest’s neck, tanned forearms from rolling up his sleeves and working in the garden, sinewy calves when wrapping a twisted ankle – is scandalous. Brushing hands in the garden, tucking a wayward piece of hair behind her ear, helping her down from a carriage, taking her arm for a walk  – those little touches are all heightened because they’re forbidden. If anyone saw, what might they think? There’s a lot of romantic tension before we even get to the kissing.


Another fun element for this series was that my main character is a witch, and her magic is inextricably linked to her emotions. When Cate loses control of her feelings, she risks losing control of her magic, too. So kissing – well, besides being scandalous, kissing can be downright dangerous – especially if the man in question doesn’t yet know she’s a witch.


Cate & Finn
Cate & Finn 3
Cate & Finn 2


(These images are from the BORN WICKED trailer created by Penguin. You can watch the whole thing here.)